Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for October 2009
I didn’t exactly lose any sleep over it, but I did feel somewhat guilty for ignoring the many lesbian-centric offerings at August’s Fringe Festival in last month’s column in order to focus on drag spoofs and shirtless boys. So I tried my best to make it up to the ladies by seeking out as many lesbian themes and actresses as I could find. Conveniently, off-Broadway was practically boiling over with broads who do broads.
First, I schlepped down to the Lower East Side to see an insanely enjoyable musical about notorious spinster Lizzie Borden. Part drawing-room period drama and part Spring Awakening–inspired rock concert, Lizzie Borden is splitting heads at the Living Theatre until October 17. The low-budget yet surprisingly high-quality show not only assumes Lizzie’s blood-splattering guilt on that fateful 1892 summer day but suggests that Alice Russell, the neighbor whom Lizzie “always received upstairs,” according to her murder trial testimony, was her secret lesbian lover. “Well, you know the old song,” whispered one catty gay man to another during intermission. “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she put on her flannel shirt and went golfing.”
Killers and Other Family, out playwright Lucy Thurber’s taut and terrific thriller at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, will also terrorize audiences through October 17. No relation to Miss Borden yet just as troubled a protagonist, young Lizzie’s Whole Foods-y Manhattan life is disrupted when her brother Jeff and his volatile pal Danny -- running from the law after Danny “accidentally” killed a girl in their rural Massachusetts hometown -- show up uninvited on her doorstep. Lizzie, whom Danny seduced when she was far too young, soon succumbs to his carnal charms once again, so it’s quite shocking when we learn that she’s now in a serious lesbian relationship. Once her clueless girlfriend Claire returns home, an awkward dinner quickly turns into a violent power struggle when Lizzie is forced to choose between the sweet comfort of Claire and the sexy danger of the menacing hunk threatening to kill her.
Though tailor-made for females, I also fit in Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss and What I Wore, an adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s book accessorized with fashion-focused stories gathered from friends of the Ephron sisters. In what Nora calls “sort of The Vagina Monologues but without the vaginas,” a rotating cast reads personal recollections celebrating the impact clothes have on a lady’s life. Highlights include an anecdote about Madonna costumes that empower women to kiss girls and gay guys, but I was most moved by two intersecting monologues about a lesbian couple’s search for the perfect wedding dress. Through October 18, the show stars Rosie O’Donnell, Tyne Daly, The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee, But I’m a Cheerleader’s Natasha Lyonne, and stage actress Katie Finneran (who played a lesbian lawyer on Fox’s Wonderfalls). Kristin Chenoweth and Glee’s Jane Lynch are scheduled for future casts of the production, which has extended into 2010 at the Westside Theatre.
Like a one-woman Laramie Project, Anna Deavere Smith has become the queen of documentary theater by spinning interviews into socially conscious solo masterpieces. Now a regular on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, Smith is perhaps best known for her Tony-nominated Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, which explored the L.A. riots following the Rodney King verdict. Let Me Down Easy (above), her riveting new work at Second Stage Theatre through November 8, is made up of 20 moving monologues about health and mortality crafted from her interviews with both male and female health care professionals, hospital patients, athletes, professors, politicos, and more, including bisexual feminist playwright-performer Eve Ensler and lesbian choreographer Elizabeth Streb, who recalls the time she set herself on fire for her girlfriend.
There’s nothing particularly gay about Still Life, which still lives on at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through November 1, except that it’s written by Alexander Dinelaris and stars Sarah Paulson; Dinelaris cowrote 2003’s musical gay fable Zanna, Don’t! and Paulson was the longtime girlfriend of Cherry Jones. I checked out the drama to see how Paulson was holding up after news broke in Us Weekly last week that the couple had amicably ended their relationship, and I’m happy to report that although her creatively stifled photographer character is a mess, the actress is in top form. As a queer bonus, Paulson’s boyfriend is played by sexy Frederick Weller, best known on the New York stage for going homosexual and homophobic in Terrence McNally’s Some Men and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, respectively.
Body Awareness, Annie Baker’s off-Broadway debut last summer, centered on a middle-aged lesbian couple raising a child with Asperger’s syndrome in small-town Vermont. Baker returns to Vermont as the setting for her latest play, Circle Mirror Transformation, which calls Playwrights Horizons home through November 1. In what might be the most flawlessly acted and cleverly crafted play I’ve seen so far this season, a kooky drama teacher, her husband, and three strangers -- an enchanting failed New York actress, a desperate divorcé, and an awkward 16-year-old girl with family problems -- bond and butt heads through a series of touchy-feely theater exercises and role-playing games during a six-week community center performance workshop. If you’ve ever taken a bullshit beginner’s acting class, you’ll roll with laughter before this motley crew rips your heart out.
In The Retributionists, a drama by Daniel Goldfarb that could be called off-Broadway’s answer to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, two male and two female Jewish freedom fighters plot murderous revenge against German war criminals in 1946. Inspired by actual events, they ultimately sicken but fail to kill more than 2,000 prisoners by poisoning bread with arsenic, which isn’t nearly as exciting as Brad Pitt scalping heads. In fact, the play only grabbed my attention when a passionate lesbian kiss revealed that while the women had hidden in the woods with one of the men during the Holocaust, the trio shared a sexual relationship that could be called off-Broadway’s answer to the song “3” by Britney Spears. Helmed by out director Leigh Silverman, the poorly reviewed production ended its brief run at Playwrights Horizons on September 27.
Girl-on-girl action is replaced by horny hermaphroditic high jinks in The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, which is also set in Europe shortly after WWII. In the tradition of Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam, Ilya Sapiroe’s low-budget genre spoof tells the tale of a mad German scientist who attempts to attach the head of Hitler to the body of a stranded houseguest. The Rocky Horror-ible musical, which runs through November 8 at the 13th Street Rep, isn’t nearly as offensive or as funny as you might hope, but New York drag star Mimi Imfurst simply kills it as Anne, who must hide in the attic after the scientist’s experiment to create a perfect female Aryan specimen goes wrong and gives her a penis. Looking like a reject from a European touring production of Beauty and the Beast, drag legend Lavinia Co-Op also scares up some laughs as Anne’s leather-bound diary.
A Speedo-wearing bartender in the lobby helped prepare me for the gratuitous full-frontal nudity and shameless political incorrectness in The Hole, a campy musical inspired by Manhattan’s short-lived East Village gay nightclub of the same name. Another red flag? The show, which ended its brief run at the Theatre at St. Clement's on September 20, was copresented by the Chelsea gay nightspot G Lounge, where book writer and star Joey Murray has tended bar for years. Murray stretches himself as an effeminate young actor who hits the infamously debauched club with a lesbian prostitute, her adult-sized African-American newborn “Baby Gaga,” her überbutch DJ girlfriend, a drag queen named “Queen LaQueefa,” a sexually confused underage jock, and many other colorful characters. Recording artist and “Out 100” honoree Ari Gold does double duty as a coat-check guy with Tourette’s syndrome and a very Jewish God after half the cast dies. Like Anne Frankenstein, it sounds funnier on paper than it played onstage, but Rob Baumgartner’s and Heidi Heilig’s songs (like the lesbian love anthem “One Heart, One Bitch”) aren’t half bad. And a mazel to Murray, a sister who’s doing it for himself.
Represented on Broadway this season with Oleanna and Race, David Mamet takes a break from his usual macho, profanity-spewing straight characters to have a gay ol’ time in Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through November 1. In the first and shorter one-act, School, two elementary school teachers verbally spar in typical Mametian fashion. But Keep Your Pantheon, the shticky second act that recalls A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, follows the comic homoerotic misadventures of an acting troupe in ancient Rome. Broadway vet Brian Murray goes all out as Strabo, a lecherous old thespian who lusts after his untalented male protégé Philius. Reprising the role he played opposite Modern Family star Ed O’Neill’s Strabo in an L.A. production last summer, Michael Cassidy fills the young himbo’s skimpy toga to perfection. I actually had a big crush on Cassidy when he starred on The O.C. as Summer’s boyfriend Zach.
I also thought Malcolm Gets was pretty cute on Caroline in the City, but I’m not so sure I’d pay to see him in a toga. You can, however, see him in Morris Panych’s two-person comedy Vigil through November 29 at the DR2 Theatre. The out actor stars as Kemp, an eccentric, insensitive loner who visits his elderly aunt, an almost completely silent character played by stage vet Helen Stenborg, to settle her affairs after learning that her days are numbered. Much to his dismay, the old gal hangs on for a year. A fun twist at the end doesn’t make up for the tiresome “monologue, morbid death joke, blackout” format of the show’s brief 37 scenes, but Panych gets points for randomly making Kemp, who resents his aunt for not fulfilling his Auntie Mame fantasies, an asexual virgin with cross-dressing tendencies. “Oh, I’ve felt an attraction for certain people in the past,” Kemp tells his aunt on Halloween. “Both women and men. Once you take off the masks, they’re all the same, aren’t they? Needy little children underneath.”
In desperate need of a better, briefer show, I hopped across the street to the Vineyard Theatre. That’s where Colman Domingo, star of Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show and Broadway’s Passing Strange (as well as Spike Lee’s film adaptation), is going solo with A Boy and His Soul through November 1. With style, smoothness, and stage presence to spare, Domingo spins his tale of growing up as a gay African-American in 1970s and ’80s Philadelphia by digging through the crates of soul, R&B, and disco records that spun his wacky family right ’round, baby, right ’round. Too bad there’s not much plot or conflict here -- even his coming-out story, while sweet, is rather unremarkable -- but if nothing else, Domingo’s 90-minute monologue is a painless excuse to chair-dance and even sing along to a few forgotten classics.